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Zuppa di Pan Cotto, Simple Bread Soup

By February 23, 2009

Toni says:
"I'm writing to ask if you ever heard of an Italian dish which my grandmother pronounced "Poon-COT"? The word probably had a vowel at the end which she didn't pronounce, kind of like "Ree-SOT" and "Mani-COT". It consisted of chicken broth with a scrambled egg stirred in the boiling mixture, and then soda crackers were added until they were very soft. It was then sprinkled with a little Parmesan cheese. She ate it when she was sick and made it for us grandchildren when we were sick. It must have worked, she lived to be 100 years old. "

And I replied:
I wasn't expecting to find much on this, because it sounds like simple home cooking of the sort the poor practiced and that those who were writing cookbooks (aimed primarily at the middle/upper classes) wouldn't have written down. I've encountered similar difficulties in trying to track down other peasant dishes, for example simple, rustic Easter breads -- they're good, but those whose economic circumstances improved enough that they could prepare richer dishes stopped making them and didn't want to be reminded of them because they brought back memories of hardship.

However, I have found a couple of recipes for Pane Cotto, one from Campania and the other, which is a little richer, from Basilicata. Both very simple, and here they are; we'll begin with the Campanian recipe, which was a way to eat leftover stale bread that was much too precious to be thrown away or given to the livestock. To serve 4, you'll need:
  • 4 thick slices crusty stale bread, at least a half pound (225 g)
  • 3-4 bay leaves
  • Salt
  • 1 quart (1 liter) water
Bring the water to a boil, salt it, and add the bay leaves. Let the mixture boil for a few minutes, and in the meantime crumble the pieces of bread and put them in your soup bowls. Spoon the broth over the bread, let it absorb the moisture for a few minutes, and serve.

Note: this is very, very frugal. You could jazz it up by adding one or two cloves of peeled crushed garlic to the pot, and dusting the soup with freshly grated Pecorino Romano at table. Or you could do more, stirring a beaten egg or two into the broth before ladling it over the bread.

Indeed, this is what they do in Basilicata; to prepare their Pane Cotto you'll need:
  • 8 tablespoons olive oil
  • A clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 4 eggs, well beaten
  • 1/2 pound (225 g) stale crusty Italian bread, crumbled
  • Ground hot pepper to taste
  • A small bunch of basil, chopped
  • 1 pint (500 ml) water
Set the water to heat, crumble the bread into 4 bowls, beat the eggs, and chop the basil.

Heat the oil in a pot big enough to contain the water as well, and saute the garlic and hot pepper to taste for a minute or two. Add the water, bring the mixture to a boil, and cook for a couple of minutes. Vigorously stir in the eggs and the basil and cook a minute more stirring all the while. Ladle the mixture over the bread and serve at once.

As a variation, you could add some freshly grated Pecorino Romano.

And there we have it, two simple variations of a peasant dish.


March 2, 2009 at 12:24 am
(1) giovanna says:

my grandmother (from abruzzi) made pane-cotto for us as children. she’d boil salted water, bay leaf and a whole clove of garlic until it smelled wonderful. then she’d put the heel or thick slices of bread into the water and immediately remove the bread to a plate. she’d sprinkle on salt, pepper and a little olive oil and that was lunch. she’d leave the skin on the garlic and omit the pepper if she was making the pane-cot for a baby. she made pane-cotto for me as a child and she also made it for my children. every so often i’ll make it for myself as comfort food.

March 2, 2009 at 1:02 am
(2) Diane Bocci says:

My mom used to mention minestra matta –crazy soup that was just egg stirred into chicken broth. It was prepared for sick persons.

March 2, 2009 at 4:16 am
(3) Maria says:

Hi in Puglia where my parents are from we also made Pane Cotto but we cut up really stale bread and put it aside. Then we fry up some garlic, onions, potatoes and sausage seasoned with salt, pepper and hot pepper flakes in some good olive oil and put that aside. Then we boil up some rapini and drain it then added it to the garlic mixture. Then to assemble it, we put the garlic, onion, potatoe and sausage, rapini mixture over the bread give it a minute to soak through and eat. I have to admit the potatos and sausages and rapini are the best part!! I always used to take those even though dad always tried to make sure no one got stuck with just the bread!!! It really is good comfort food.

March 2, 2009 at 6:18 am
(4) tootsie says:

My fater was from Abruzzi. I remember as a small child he would save the pasta water, cook some onions and garlic, add it to the water. They he took stale bread that my mother had made, dip it into beaten eggs with cheese added and then cook it in the ‘broth’. We loved it even though we didn’t have it often. I am reading a book “Hungering in America” which describes the hunger that they had in Italy before the emigration. Now I understand why he wanted to save and eat every crust of bread.

March 2, 2009 at 3:05 pm
(5) Catherine says:

Small world it is.My Mamma used to make ‘pane cuotto’like this.Boil some water with onions and a ripe tomatoe,pepper and some salt.Then add some chicory and chopped savoy cabbage raw or leftover. Heat up together,Add some day-old bread in big chunks and cook for 15 min. or q.b.Add some grated cheese on top when serving.We are from the border of Campania and Puglia.delicious on a cold ,damp day.

March 3, 2009 at 10:53 am
(6) jojo says:

It was not so much how nonna said it, rather how we hear the words. Dialect aside, Italian is complex. ‘Pon Cot’ ‘pane cotto’ is literally cooked bread. Italiana waste nothing! Wonderful zuppa can spring forth from humble left-overs,even bread. jojo

March 3, 2009 at 4:07 pm
(7) Denise says:

My nonna never made it for us, but I’m going to remember this recipe….tough economic times may be ahead!

March 5, 2009 at 7:09 am
(8) Barbara says:

How timely! We just saw Clara on both the CBS AND NBC nightly news!

March 5, 2009 at 8:14 am
(9) jojo says:

‘buono come il pane’ is an expression that denotes that it is the ‘best’ so to speak. Literally, ‘as good as bread’. Bread being the substance of what is good. My heritage from Gravina in Puglia e’Moteroduna, Molise both have versions of Pane cotto. To choose which is better is impossible.This dish is now served in many ‘upscale’ ‘authentic ‘ Italian style restaurants at sharp prices!

March 5, 2009 at 11:04 am
(10) Cecilia says:

My mother was first generation Italian-American, and her parents came from the Puglia region of Italy. Because we had a very large family, and money was often tight, we became familiar with Pane Cotto (whenever there was bread leftover to become stale). The version my mother made for us sometimes used chicken broth, and always had garlic, onions and fresh herbs, and beaten eggs (we had an aunt who had a chicken farm, so we always had a lot of fresh eggs). Mom would cook the bread in the soup–the big heel ends were my favorite as they were the perfect combination of chewy and soft. We never had a lot of money, but we seldom felt deprived, as we always had full bellies. And now “peasant food” like pane cotto and pasta y fagioli and others cost at least six bucks a bowl at restaurants.

March 5, 2009 at 11:04 am
(11) Toni says:

I, too, saw Clara on CBS news last night and spent the remainder of the evening on my laptop watching her cook on YouTube. Her recipes are frugal but they must be healthy as well. She’s 93 and still cooking for her grandson and his friends….and she still has her sense of humor. What a delightful lady!

March 5, 2009 at 1:00 pm
(12) lee says:

I am 75 yrs, I have been eating a version of bread soup for as long as I can remember. My mother [italian],would saute garlic, redpepper, salt in olive oil, add water [24oz] break up heavy crust sour dough bread, add it to pan. cook until water is gone. Now its like mush. I still make at least once a month

March 17, 2009 at 9:22 pm
(13) Maria says:

Hi Jojo
nice comment on how some of this so called Italian “peasant” food is now sold at really high prices at some upscale restraunts. I find it so funny! Pane Cotto has always been something that we ate when we had nothing else to eat just stale old bread that nobody wanted! I left a comment earlier on how Dad made it with potatoes and sausage and rapini to give it some flavour. I also found that pasta e fagioli is now served at really high prices with some fancy name, and what in Roseto in Puglia we called minestra which was in our town a mix of dandelion greens mixed with oil and sausage meat and hot peppers cooked until mushy (Dad’s way!) Again, when there was no money to buy other food. Too funny, if only Americans and Canadians knew how cheap this food was to make. But, no less tastey and filling and healthy! Anyways, take care all.

June 10, 2009 at 1:42 pm
(14) Denise says:

My family is Sicillian. I’m looking for a recipe where you dip stale bread in a egg and parmesian cheeze mixture and layer the bread up the soup pan and bake. In the meantime your chicken soup would cook. When done, you would scoop the bread in a bowl and ladel your soup over it. Does anyone know about this and how long would you bake the bread in the oven and at what temperature? Please help!

July 23, 2009 at 11:26 pm
(15) Joe says:

Maria great post. My family is from roseto too. Do you have any of the old recipes from the town. If so please email them to me joe@finelli.ca


September 27, 2009 at 5:14 pm
(16) erich says:

I hope you dont mind my poping in like this . This dish sounds good, although I’m hopeing I can get some help from you/someone…I’m 4th gen Italian my grandma cooked a dish somewhat simmaler so I thought you might know what I’m looking for. It is/was a poor family food useing leaft over sour dough bread ,,cabage tomato sauce, pork roast, parm cheese ect. she called it zuppa di ponna con ( yea I know spelling is off) unfortuneatly she past on to other side and I’m looking for the recipe..If you can help it would be welcomed.

September 28, 2009 at 2:47 am
(17) Kyle says:

Hi Erich,

No problem at all. However, I’m not sure there is a recipe for what your grandma used to make. It sounds like she was enriching a simple peasant dish, because while the bread, cabbage, and tomato sauce are ingredients one finds in peasant foods, the meats and cheeses are not — Italian peasants were simply too poor to be able to afford them (and this is one of the major reasons they left Italy). When their circumstances improved in their new lands, they began to enrich the traditional simple peasant fare, and here we have the addition of pork roast and cheese. Bottom line is that you could use the zuppa di pane as a base and experiment, aiming for what your grandma made, but I don’t think there is anything hard-and-fast, also because dishes of this kind, which are a way to use leftovers, never come out the same way twice because the ingredients vary a bit from batch to batch.

September 12, 2011 at 10:13 pm
(18) Elisa says:

Today, I babysat for my 1 yr. old grandson and I made him panecotto Abruzzese style. A piece of dayold bread, some water, 1 tablespoon olive oil, a pinch of salt and 1 egg.
I brought the ingredients to a boil and after few minutes I added the slightly beaten egg. No baby food in jars.

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